Nov 052013

One of the benefits of having worked in both product management and technology for over 35 years is that you gain a certain perspective. We live in an endless stream of invention. It seems as though everything is new. But to the astute, the observant, even in an explosion of discovery, patterns emerge.

If you are brilliant, you see these patterns earlier than others. Intel cofounder Gordon E. Moore observed in 1965 that the number of integrated circuits (remember those?) would double every two years. This brilliant insight came to be known as Moore’s Law, and it predicted and explained the growth in technological capability and the decrease in cost — and hence the ubiquity — of computing.

Today, everyone knows Moore’s Law. Far fewer, however, have heard of Metcalfe’s Law. Metcalfe, the coinventor of Ethernet, observed that the value of a network could be expressed as the “square of the number of connected devices.” The best explanation I ever got of Metcalfe’s Law was several years ago from a friend who used the analogy of fax machines. What is the value of one fax machine? Nothing. It’s not until you have two devices — a network — that value emerges. Each additional device adds not linear but exponential growth to the value of the overall network. Fax machines may be a dated analogy, but the principle remains.

Proponents of social media have argued a proposition similar to Metcalfe’s Law. The value of your network is directly correlated to its size; that is, the number of “nodes.” It’s a tempting proposition. Metcalfe, like Moore before him, was a genius and visionary, something I clearly am not. Nevertheless, I am going to have the temerity to correct social media “gurus” and dispute with Metcalfe himself — at least in this context. I would argue that the number of connected nodes on a network does not give the network actual value. It gives the network potential value. The capability to create value may grow exponentially, but the actual value does not.

Call me cynical, but the actual value of many human networks is moderated by another law, this one taken not from science but from science fiction. Theodore Sturgeon, a 1950s-era science fiction writer observed in the March 1958 issue of Venture that “ninety percent of everything is crap.” Sturgeon was referring to science fiction writing, but he extended his observation — initially called “Sturgeon’s Revelation” — to include all art.

My own personal revelation with regard to any electronic network is that understanding the real value created by or within those networks requires the combination of Metcalfe’s Law and Sturgeon’s Law. Our own office anachronism, the fax machine, often spews out an endless stream of nonsense. A quick glance at your inbox will clearly demonstrate that most email is worthless and a waste of precious time. There are countless examples that show Sturgeon’s Law is alive and well within any network.

Yet we never seem to learn. As each new technological innovation enters the market, we seem to see only the big numbers and the potential for value and not the inevitable deluge of “crap” that accompanies the growth of any human network. Social media is an absolute case in point. Everything seems driven by the large numbers. The number of friends. The number of contacts. The number of messages sent and received.

As a result, social media in a business sense has often given rise to two armed camps. There are the believers — those who confuse the potential value with the actual value. I call them “Sturgeon’s Law deniers.” On the other side, there are the cynics. These maintain that anything “social” is a time waster. It’s not real work or capable of generating real value. As Oscar Wilde said, a cynic is “a man who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing.”

Somewhere in between is the truth. Part of that truth is that human beings crave connectivity. As much as we complain, few of us are willing to cut ourselves off from social media even though we despise wading through the detritus of communication. Dealing with the vast amount of a crap is a price we are always willing to pay for content and connectivity.

There is another truth we cannot ignore. Those who find and focus on the value and not the volume in social media find commercial success. In the modern enterprise, it’s essential. Every person and every organization is strapped for time and resources as never before. Our marketplace is not merely competitive, it is hypercompetitive. This is the central question and the real challenge of social media strategies: how do we use them to find and leverage the value and minimize the waste?

It is possible to do — by leveraging measurement to discover, drive, and deliver value.

Measurement forces you through the rigor of developing a clear approach targeted at results. It makes you start from the results you want and work backward. We all know that focusing on measurable results gets results. You get what you inspect, not what you expect. Despite this, it is the antithesis of what many social media campaigns do.

Measurement is also essential to drive the cultural and behavioral change that sustains results. Regular measurement drives the step-by-step, behavior-by-behavior change that builds habits and, eventually, a cultural change.


Jim Love

Jim Love is a Senior Consultant with the Business Technology Strategies practice. He is also the CEO of Chelsea Consulting, a strategic IT and business consulting company specializing in outsourcing and SaaS.


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